Turning on its head what scientists earlier thought caused aging, the researchers found that the drug causes an increase in the number of toxic oxygen molecules released in the cell and this, surprisingly, increases cell robustness and longevity in the long term.

"Metformin causes a slight increase in the number of harmful oxygen molecules. We found that this makes cells stronger and extends their healthy lifespan," said Wouter De Haes from University of Leuven in Belgium.

Mitochondria - the energy factories in cells - generate tiny electric currents to provide the body's cells with energy and highly reactive oxygen molecules are produced as a by-product of this process.

While these molecules are harmful because they can damage proteins and DNA and disrupt normal cell functioning, a small dose can actually do the cell good."Cells use the reactive oxygen particles to their advantage before they can do any damage," De Haes explained.

The researchers studied metformin's mechanism in the tiny roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, an ideal species for studying ageing because it has a lifespan of only three weeks.

Worms treated with metformin show very limited size loss and no wrinkling."While we should be careful not to over-extrapolate our findings to humans, the study is promising as a foundation for future research," De Haes cautioned.

The study appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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